Fudge: The gift that keeps on giving. Or at least keeps on producing articles and tangential discussion in the comments…
This is part three of my probably over-wrought, and certainly drawn-out series on fudging, based entirely on my own experience and opinions. The other parts can be found here and here.
(Epilogue to the story: In commemoration of the Act of Fudge in the previous session, my wonderful wife made my gaming group a plate of peanut butter and milk chocolate fudge for Thursday’s game. Ironically, this session ended in a TPK, although the MacGuffin and the storyline were both saved.)
Everyone’s got their own definition, but I don’t consider it to be fudge if the GM makes a change to a situation before it happens. In other words, if the GM decides to tweak the stats for the Sharks With Frickin’ Laser Beams before the party gets to the Shark Tank, that’s not fudging.
Changing a stat or a scenario that is ‘in play’ is definitely fudge. Overriding the dice or otherwise changing the result of an action, or making a change to something after it has already been introduced to the game is fudging. (Such as if the GM changed Big McLargeHuge’s armor class after the players already knew it.)
There’s a bit of a grey area where the GM makes a change to something before that something really matters to the game. If the GM decides that Big McLargeHuge has too many hit points and cuts them by 20%, even after he’s been hit a few times, it’s not necessarily fudge. I’ll leave this one up to you, but beware – Follow this line of logic too deep, and you’ll end up with quantum states for fudge, which is far too geeky a topic even for me.
Recipes for Fudge
I’m sure there are more, but here are a few ways to fudge:
- “Correct” the die rolls. This is probably the most recognizable method of fudging, and may be the most common. This is also probably why rolling in the open has its fans.
- Tweak the numbers. If you can’t move the ball, at least you can move the goalposts. As mentioned above, some gamers distinguish between numbers that are ‘in play’ and numbers that exist only in the GM’s notes.
- Use less-effective tactics. If your monsters have ever attacked a PC because he had highest hit points, then you’ve used this tactic. There can be some justification for this, if the party tank is trying to draw fire. But if the archers are charging into melee while the knights are hanging back and throwing rocks, you may be responsible for a fudgalanche.
When a GM lies, he murders some part of the game.
In some of the comments on this series, it was mentioned that my failing was in fudging overtly, and being too transparent with my players. Had I found a way of smuggling my fudge into the game, we would have had an exciting near-TPK and everything would have been better. (On the down side, I also would have had to come up with three more articles for Gnome Stew…)
Personally, I’m conflicted on the topic of fudge-smuggling. There are times when a die roll is unnecessary, but you make the roll to keep up appearances. There are times when a Really Cool Idea that the entire party is excited about gets tripped up by a single (un)lucky roll. I do understand the temptation of fudge-smuggling.
But to take away some of the risk of the game (as I did) also takes away some of the fun of the game. Players will eventually find out about fudging, and may then wonder how many of their victories were earned, and how many were handed to them. Lying about fudging does not necessarily make it more acceptable. Fudging is another tool in the GM’s toolbox; it’s not necessarily something to hide. (But that donkey fetish? That’s definitely something you should hide.)
Story is important. Risk is important. GM flexibility is important. Justly-earned rewards are important. The integrity of the game is important. GM trust is important. Many things in a game are important. When they come into conflict, know just how important each one is before making the decision.
It is up to each gaming group to define their own attitude towards fudging. Talk about it before it happens, be honest with yourselves and with each other, and don’t stop until you find a compromise that everyone likes.
Mea Maxima Motherfucking Culpa
I fudged to save the story at the expense of the fun of the game. Taking some of the risk out of the game also took some of the fun out of the game. In my defense, story-ending TPKs have a marked tendency to take the fun out of a game, too, and I slightly underestimated my group’s dislike of fudge.
(Intro gentle guitar music.) I’ve learned or re-learned a few things through this experience.
- Talk to your players about fudging and other aspects of the game. Their opinions may surprise you.
- Always have a Plan B, in case it all goes to hell. Because someday, it will.
- Don’t be afraid to fundamentally alter the campaign as you see it. Trust your imagination and problem-solving abilities to find a solution.
- Don’t assume that you have to smuggle the fudge into the game. Your players might be okay with overt fudging, if it is for a good reason.
- You can get three articles and many impassioned comments from a single gaming incident. (So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.)
Thanks for sticking with this series, and all the ins and outs of fudge, or at least one GM’s take on it. Whether you agree, disagree, or just want to see your name in print, please dive into the comments below and sound off with your take on fudging.
I’m one who recommended the “covert fudge” in a post on an earlier article on this series. I want to clarify.
Transparency is important to long-term games. The players must trust the GM, and the GM must trust the players. Without trust, which transparency is part of, the game might be a lot of fun for a session or two, but will quickly break down. Trust can make things a bit more boring up front, but is essential for a positive sustained group experience.
It is in that light that I fully agree with the conclusions of this article–that a group must decide their attitude toward fudge beforehand. However, it can take a different form. Up front, a GM can be transparent that she won’t always be transparent in game, for the sake of fun, suspense, and keeping the story alive.
Think about it in terms of a perception check. The rules of D&D suggest that the GM secretly roll the perception check so they players won’t know if they fail to notice something. This is an example of agreed-upon lack of transparency that is codified in the rules. It is logical, and it can result in fun for the players when done right. (It’s also easy to do it wrong, but that is another matter.)
Kurt describes 3 methods of fudging (unfortunately, he omitted the Olestra binge). My favored tactic for fudging is outside of these–modifying the terrain. The situation seems hopeless, the players notice something they didn’t before (or something in the scene changes), and they players can exploit this thing for either mechanical benefit or escape.
This tactic almost always works. It might not have worked as well in the situation Kurt describes–the players have pretty much gone into an encounter knowing that there might be no possibility for retreat. In this case, I wonder if the GM might add to his toolbox the phrase, “If you take this action, you might be leaving yourself with no retreat.” This could easily take the form of a knowledge check, or an insight that the tactician in the party has–so the players get to choose what to do with it. If I were to speak this phrase to my players, the fudge would be flung on the wall, the dice would be rolled in the center of the table, and I would consider it my sacred duty as GM to do everything I could to crush the puny heroes.
@mougoo – Good points! If the group approves GM fudgery in advance, then that option is definitely open. But it may still leave the players wondering if the sweet taste of victory is really just the sweet taste of fudge.
“Wait! what’s this?” is indeed a fourth possibility, although it’s similar to tweaking the numbers in that something in the equation has changed. I’m sure as creative a group as our readers can find more possibilities.
FWIW, the party/group knew the limitations of the ritual system, including that there was no exit for a few hours at least. They opened a small portal to kick a bag of MacGuffins back home, then turned to face their fates like heroes. Hoo-ah!
Sounds like they were asking for a TPK 🙂
“Wait! what’s this?” might mean something in the equation has changed–but really, in a story-based game, information is added all the time. My players will actually often ask the question for me, so it isn’t the GM providing the “out.”
For instance, if the characters are in a dungeon room that I’ve described, and cornered and outnumbered, someone might ask if there is a statue in the room. If it isn’t ludicrous that a statue would be in the room, I’ll give it a roll. Perhaps the statue can be toppled, or hidden behind, or something like that. Same goes for dirt on the floor to be thrown in eyes, furniture for cover, heck, sometimes even minor geographic features.
The odds of “Wait! what’s this?” working improve if
a) the “this” in question is logical, and/or
b) the player provides a compelling story reason for the object
Really, this comes up in my games outside of combat, too. I recall a game where the players had to stop a gang in a city. They decided to do a stakeout, and one player said, “I’ve got a friend who is a baker.” He provided some backstory, and said the baker’s shop was on the street. It was interesting enough that I didn’t even roll–the baker’s shop was across the street from the gang’s hideout.
What made the encounter fun was the fact that the gang was expecting the party to raid their hideout, and so had sent some snipers to the bakery’s second floor (the baker’s loft) to take out the party at the door. So, the players had to succeed on the charisma checks to get the message from their friend, the baker, that the bad guys were upstairs; they creatively devised a means of safely communicating (asking how many “buns were in the batch”); they sneaked upstairs to confront the snipers; and ultimately had to protect their new friend, the baker, in ensuing combat!
None of this was planned by me ahead of time–and at the same time, my setting description made all of this make sense. I got a new NPC out of the deal (one who the players actually cared about!), an interesting extra combat in an unusual setting (flour getting thrown in people’s eyes, using the fire in the stove as a weapon, trying to not burn down their friend’s bakery…)
I know this is a different situation than fudging in combat, but it is a portrayal of the benefit of the “Wait! what’s this?” mode of gaming that was highly successful. In combat, this tends to be briefer, but it has worked in my experience–especially when the players initiate the question.
@mougoo – Ah, that is different. I was thinking of a GM throwing a bone to a beleaguered party. I’m not sure if what you’re describing is actually fudge or just adding detail to the scene.
Then again, one man’s fudge is another man’s brownie… Or something like that.
Excellent series Kurt! I appreciate how you made it clear that one size does not fit all, and that treating fudging as a social issue and not a mechanics issue is what is really important. Some groups won’t care and some groups will, so know what the group thinks about fudging before implementing it.
I’m glad to see this topic given new life through a nice series of articles. Since being a GM is more an art than a science, every GM must at some point come to grips with his own feelings about fudge. Players should too, but they have less room for fudging and have to deal mainly with the aftermath.
The one main thing I disagree with in this column is the comment that “When a GM lies, he murders some part of the game.” I don’t consider fudging lying, and in the normal course of the game it’s sometimes important to give false information to your players.
If I’ve made a collosal mistake in judging my players’ abilities or level of interest, sometimes it’s like going to the doctor. Now and again you have to cut off an unseemly growth to keep the rest whole and healthy. So I guess my main concern is where the fudging fault lies. I know it’s almost always with me, but sometimes it’s with the players. In your case, it sounds like they played foolishly and in a way forced your hand.
Something I strongly believe in is setting the stage with players before ever gaming with them. I outline a few ground rules like this:
1) I will help you. Dropping clues, providing NPCs etc.
2) I will not kill you. Meaning I won’t purposefully be out to kill the party.
3) I will not save you. You get in it, you get yourself out.
4) Until it happens at the table it is just theory.
5) Once it happens at the table, it is writtne in stone. No redo’s no roll overs etc.
6) Fun, story. In that order.
@jasales – I think I might revise that for my own personal use with my group. Thanks for sharing it!
@evil – That was half-joking, but only half…
The point is that when you fudge covertly, you run the risk that your players might see fudge where it really isn’t. In a sense, it is a bit like lying (the origin of the quote, if you’re not a Metallica fan).
@jasales – I may borrow that as well. Thanks for sharing it!
Fudging is always tricky– it sounds like you came out of the experience with some interesting new perspective. That seems to be the key: try your best and learn from whatever you try.
It doesn’t sound like your players were ready to riot when they heard what had happened– and they all got to experience the joy of a good TPK the following session. 😉
@evil – Players have less room for fudging?
So, you’ve not seen the “Which of those dice was the tens again?” rethink in action?
Or the “three arm retcon”? – previous round: “I have a torch in one hand and the map in the other”. This round “I hit with my sword! What? I *always* carry my sword in my hand!”.
Or the “I forgot that non class skills cost double” gambit?
Or the “I’ll roll my level-up HP at home later” maneuver?
And let’s not forget that most honored of all player fudges, the “always available 50 foot rope” ploy.
I’d say the opportunities for player fudging were as numerous as the players multiplied by the things that they want to do.
Here’s my, perhaps over-wrought, approach:
@Roxysteve – Point taken. The opportunities for fudge on both sides are endless, it would seem. I’m inclined to let a little fudge go from both sides, as long as there is no vulgar abuse of fudge.
@evil – Vulgar abuses of fudge should only be between consenting adults, and whatever midgets and/or livestock are handy.